It was the end of 2013 and a tumultuous time for Egypt when we filmed the Coptic Christian community. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s dictator of 30 years, had been overthrown in 2011 and replaced by the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Morsi, in 2012.
In July 2013, after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the street to protest the increasingly-autocratic Morsi, the head of Egypt’s military, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared on television flanked by many political , military and religious leaders, including the Coptic pope. Al-Sisi announced that the government of Morsi was officially being thrown out.
The pope’s support for al- Sisi provided all the pretense needed for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists to attack Christian communities. On August 6, 2013 over 60 churches and religious buildings were attacked mainly in southern Egypt.
Our cameraman was able to sneak into those areas and film the burnt out churches and the scared populace. A priest of one of the churches that was burned down remarked, “If the devil had come down with his whole army he could not of done what the Muslim Brotherhood did.”Those who see our footage will understand exactly what he is talking about.
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Another priest told a story of a Christian man that was dragged out of his house, mutilated and killed. The family buried the man only to discover that another angry mob dug up his grave, tied him to a tractor and dragged his dead body through the streets.
Another man we met in Alexandria told us a story of how his wife and two daughters were killed in the infamous 2011 New Year’s bombing in which 21 people were killed when a car- bomb burst through the church in the very first minutes of the New Year. That incident was to many a sign of bad times to come.
And, indeed, since the beginning of the Arab Spring, attacks on churches increased and kidnappings of young Christian women became rampant. It was a dangerous time to be Christian in Egypt, to say the least.
No wonder 93,000 Christians left Egypt in 2011 alone. Even the protection of the government was lost as Islamists gained power in all sectors of society and, at times, the government actively participated in attacking Christians.
This was the case in the infamous Maspero attack, where the Egyptian armed mowed down 27 Christians in front of the Maspero building in Cairo who were part of a peaceful protest against the burning of a church in southern Egypt.
Once Morsi was elected, Christians began to see institutionalized persecution with more cases of blasphemy charges against Christians popping up. Radical Islamic groups were allowed to preach against Christians on public television and efforts were being made to curb Christian representation in Parliament.
Although Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were (and continue to be) crushed by al-Sisi, that has not stopped the continued discrimination against Christians, kidnappings of young Christian girls and gratuitious blasphemy charges. In addition, Coptic Christians also face threats and danger abroad, as in the case when the Islamic State captured 21 Coptic Christians in Libya and beheaded them.
But it is important to note that this wasn’t the only time that it was dangerous to be a Christian in Egypt. Things have been getting worse for Christians in Egypt for decades — the Muslim Brotherhood was just an extreme.
Under Nasser, the Christians fared well; under Sadat things started to get bad as he began to allow Islamic parties to rear their heads; under Mubarak, Christians were a protected minority with sporadic attacks every now and again and several legal, economic and social restrictions.
However, during the entire 20th century, Christians were at the whim of the ruling power and were treated as second class citizens. But what we discovered was that the story of the persecution and perseverance of the Egyptian Coptic Christians actually was much deeper and longer than the modern era.
In old Cairo, we filmed inside the Coptic Museum. The museum tells not only of the modern history of the church and Egyptian state, but the ancient roots of the Egyptian Copts dating back to Pharaonic times. The Coptic Christians are not a foreign minority implanted by the West as they are often accused of being by radical Muslims. Rather, they are an indigenous community that had a rich culture of language, art and literature and is one of the oldest and biggest Christian communities in the Middle East.
Sadly, most of this culture consists of stories of the past. However, we did find several individuals that were attempting to keep these cultural traditions alive.
There was the Auron family in Australia which still spoke the Coptic language in their everyday activities. We connected with Rami, a young British Coptic artist who was painting in a specifically Coptic tradition. But these were individuals.
Ever since the seventh century, the Coptic community has dwindled from a majority to a small minority that has all but lost its language, art and its non-Arabic identity. Long ago, the Coptic language was replaced with Arabic and Copts have tried to maintain their patriotism for a country that often discriminates against them.
Due to economic hardships and persecution, since the 1950s, a large Coptic diaspora has developed outside of Egypt and with it Coptic identity has evolved. As with the Iraqi Christian community, the question of identity in the diaspora has become crucial. What does it mean to be a Coptic Christian when living in Australia, Virginia or France?
Many Copts living in the diaspora were clear about what they felt the core of the Coptic identity is, which they identified as faith. To the Coptic community, faith is everything, according to Michael Meunier, president of the American Coptic Association and a Coptic Christian who grew up in Egypt.
And indeed, perhaps more than any other Christian community, Copts have a proud and unique sense of martyrdom, rituals and being steadfast to their faith.“They maintained
Because of this sense of survival and faith, many Coptic Christians, though aware of their dire circumstances, were not afraid that the community would disappear one day. “We will survive as we have always survived,” maintains Ashraf Ramaleh, head of Voice of the Copts, a Virginia-based Coptic Christian advocacy organisation.
Many Coptic Christians, both inside and outside of Egypt, have a small cross tattooed on their wrist — a symbol of identity and age-old persecution. It is a statement of faith as well as defiance symbolizing that Copts are here to stay and will continue to keep their faith.